WEATHER FROM OUR SPONSORS
Under the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriages even in states that have legalized it. This week, the Supreme Court ruled DOMA unconstitutional.
There are two possible grounds, distinct and in some ways contradictory, for doing so. The curious thing about the court’s DOMA decision is that it contains both rationales.
The first is federalism. Marriage is the province of the states. Each state decides who is married and who is not. The federal government may not intrude. It must therefore recognize gay marriage where it has been legalized.
If that were the essence of the argument, the court’s 5-4 decision would have been constitutionally conservative, neither nationalizing nor delegitimizing gay marriage. It would allow the issue to evolve over time as the people decide state by state.
It would thus be the antithesis of Roe v. Wade. That judicial fiat swept away every state abortion law that did not conform to the court’s idea of what abortion law should be. Even many liberal supporters of abortion rights have admitted that Roe was an unfortunate way to change the law. It prevented a stable social settlement of an issue.
On the face of it, the court avoided a disaster regarding same-sex marriage by adopting judicial modesty.
It allows popular sentiments on gay marriage to translate themselves democratically into law. Which in turn allows, in contradistinction to abortion, a political settlement of the question state by state. It may not satisfy everyone, but it does give everyone a voice in the disposition of the issue and a sense of the legitimacy of the outcome.
Except that in the DOMA decision, the court added a second rationale: equal protection. In states with same-sex marriage, Washington must give the same federal benefits to gay couples as to straight couples because to do otherwise is to discriminate against the gay couples.
After all, they are equally married in their states. For Washington to discriminate against them is to deny them equal protection of the laws. Such discrimination is nothing more than irrational animus — and therefore constitutionally inadmissible.
If discriminating (regarding federal benefits) between a gay couple and a straight couple is prohibited in New York where gay marriage is legal, by what logic is discrimination permitted in Texas, where a gay couple is prevented from marrying in the first place?
Which is exactly where the majority’s second rationale leads — nationalizing gay marriage, the way Roe nationalized abortion. This is certainly why David Boies, the lead attorney in the companion Proposition 8 case, was so jubilant when he came out onto the courthouse steps after the ruling.
So why didn’t Justice Anthony Kennedy, the traditional swing vote who wrote the majority opinion on DOMA with the court’s four liberals, take that step? Why did he avoid doing the full Roe — nationalizing the procedure in question and declaring the subject now closed? I suspect he thought it would be a bridge too far. At least for today.
But he knows that the double rationale underlying his DOMA opinion has planted the seed for going Roe next time. It was prudence, not logic, that stayed his hand.
Next case — Kennedy & Co. go all the way.
Charles Krauthammer writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. He is also a Fox News commentator.
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